Playwrights have always created dramatic, enticing, effective openings to their plays. The object of the opening scenes is to provide the exposition of the play. It often sets the mood, the atmosphere, the tone, the general ambience, the characters, and all the other aspects of the play. In brief, the opening presents the audience with the status quo of the play, which can be peaceful and orderly, or can be amidst confusion, terror, comedy, or any other mood chosen by the playwright. For William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, the opening exposition scenes can be analyzed for comparison.
In writing his plays, Shakespeare puts a lot of emphasis on the exposition of the piece. In focus, the first two witch scenes in Macbeth, provide hidden details about the events to come. Likewise, the guards in Hamlet also foreshadow a pending trouble in the castle. In both cases, neither is detailed enough to give away the plot to the audience. Shakespeare uses the opening scenes to create such tension to leave the audience pending. The atmosphere of the two scenes is largely different, which creates specific emotional responses from the audience that Shakespeare manipulates through his stage performance. Furthermore, the characters present in the scenes are not main characters but rather minor characters that often highlight major themes of the play. In this case, both plays open with scenes that hint to the main characters’ central conflicts.
On the surface level, the opening scene in Macbeth is simply that of three witches carrying out a ritual in the dark of night. However, to closely examine these characters, the third scene of Act I is also taken into consideration. The witches make reference to Macbeth from the start. The opening scene is filled with antithesis. The witches speak seemingly contradictory phrases such as “When the battle’s lost and won”, which in the end hold true enough. This scene starts with thunder and lightning. The scene is staged with dark lighting and loud thundering noises. The audience is introduced to the play with a sense of hostility. It is unclear what the witches are speaking of in this scene. However, they do mention that they will “meet with Macbeth.”
In the third scene of the opening act, the witches are present again. They now speak to Macbeth and Banquo, who return from battle. They declare that Macbeth is the Thane of Cawdor and shall be king. This is Macbeth’s self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the witches speak true about his position as Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth is convinced that he must be king. This drives him to kill Duncan to gain the throne. In this sense, the audience does not know of this yet. Shakespeare uses the witches to hint at this possibility-he is foreshadowing. Relating back to the first scene, the scenario spoken by the witches are much more logical. In fact, the battle is indeed lost and won as proven later in the final scene of the play.
Shakespeare thus crafts his opening scene for a very specific purpose. The word of the witches all ring true in the end. However, the audience is left to guess whether Macbeth’s downfall is a result of the witches’ evil doings or simply because of his strictly human greed and ambition. This is the central conflict of the play. Macbeth is faced with the choice of murdering the king for his own benefit or to abide lawfully and await the throne if ever the chance comes. The witches are simply minor characters used to ignite this conflict that disturbs Macbeth. The opening scene of thunder and rain with the witches often gives the impression that Macbeth is manipulated by the clearly evil witches. However, further analysis suggests the witches have done nothing but simply provide the truth in affairs. In this sense, the opening scene is used by Shakespeare to underscore Macbeth’s internal moral conflict. The first scene almost outlines the entire plot of the story while the third scene delves into the details of Macbeth’s future. Overall, Shakespeare crafts this exposition to show the central theme of the play-the battle between Macbeth’s reasonable side that abides by law and order against the human passion that leads Macbeth to murder for power.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare has chosen a different approach to cast an effect on the audience. Compared with Macbeth, Hamlet does not being in thunder or rain with three witches that seem to take part in a sort of incantation. Instead, Hamlet opens with a dead silent stage where darkness surrounds the area. The scene creates immediate tension with the very first line, which is Bernado asking, “Who’s there?” The reply from Francisco, who is at the guard post, is: “Nay, answer me: stand, and unfold yourself.” The answer only echoes back as “Long live the king!”, which still does not reveal any identities, until Francisco has to guess that it is Bernado. These opening five lines are so cleverly crafted by Shakespeare. They are specifically directed to highlight the central theme of Hamlet-which is Hamlet’s internal conflict in trying to figure out the true identity of the ghost. Just as Macbeth is based on Macbeth’s degradation towards evil as a character, Hamlet is centred around Hamlet’s suspicious of the ghost-he thinks it may be a demon or the devil trying to push him towards evil. In this sense, the scenarios can be seen as similar, the difference being in that Macbeth never questions the identity of the witches.
In contrast with Macbeth, the opening is even more frightening despite the lack of thunder and lightning. Francisco reports that his guard has been so quiet that not a “mouse [has stirred]”. This brings to the audience a disturbing quality about the atmosphere of the scene. The silence is not a soothing, smooth silence but rather a threateningly deafening silence. The general feeling is that ‘something is not right.’ Yet again, the darkness plays yet another large role in this scene. As Marcellus and Horatio arrive, Francisco yells “Stand, ho! Who’s there?” This suggests that even within the castle walls, Francisco feels the need to keep guard and be alert. The “bitter cold” and the fact that “‘Tis now struck twelve” brings an eerie mood to the scene. The audience is struck with this tension and fear of an unknown element-later revealed as the ghost.
Other than the cold midnight scene, the emphasis is mainly put on the identity concealment. At the start, there is almost a confusion of identities where Bernado questions the identity of the guard on duty. In an almost comical sense, Francisco replies negatively and asks that Bernado reveal his identity. This role reversal paired with the tense, almost hostile mood created by the characters’ angst. The audience is given a sense that the guards are all afraid of something that is not revealed yet. Shakespeare ingeniously makes this opening scene full of this angst and nervousness to spread the mood to the audience. Thematically, the opening scene delves straight into identity confusion and false appearances. Hamlet himself later assumes the false appearance of a madman. Polonius himself is a man of high false appearance, which Hamlet is able to see right through. Claudius is also wearing a mask as he pretends not to know anything of the king’s death when he is the murderer. All in all, Hamlet revolves around false appearances, masks, and assumes identities. Shakespeare subtly conveys this theme across straight from the very first “Who’s there?” line.
The dramatic effects achieved by Shakespeare in his two masterpieces thus rely on the basics of theatre drama. He uses his character’s words, the stage’s appearance, and the general atmosphere of the stage to create the angst, the terror, the deafening silence, and the hostile environment of his plays. In using these dramatic effects, Shakespeare evokes emotion in the audience, which is the fundamental goal of stage productions. He is able to, at the same time, convey the deeper literary value of his work by setting up his themes through character’s actions and words. Just as with other works, Shakespeare’s main characters experience a major internal conflict. For Macbeth, it is his tormented soul after having committed murder. For Hamlet, it is his inability to muster the courage to kill Claudius-he instead gives in to his logical suspicion of the ghost’s word. The characters’ inner trouble is reflected, in both plays, in the opening scene.
And once again, Shakespeare has demonstrated the art of drama through his very masterpieces. Using subtleties that lay beyond the literal meaning of spoken words, Shakespeare combines the literature of his work to the live performances to give his audience the full experience of drama. With Hamlet and Macbeth in focus, it is clear as to how Shakespeare’s every line is more than what it seems, bringing the best to both the amateur enthusiast to the literary critic.